Who is Alwaleed bin Talal, the absurdly rich prince at the center of the Saudi corruption purge?
Even if you didn’t know much about Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal before his arrest on Saturday — in what was either an anti-corruption purge or a political crackdown — you’re almost certainly acquainted with his money.
The biography on Alwaleed’s personal website consists of a single sentence about his background (born 1955; grandson of the first king of Saudi Arabia), followed by a dense page crammed with details of his wealth and power:
Holdings in Twitter, Lyft, Euro Disney and Twentieth Century Fox; luxury hotels across the world; a tower under construction in Saudi Arabia that will soon be the world’s tallest building. Or his opulent palace, where Business Insider once reported the prince kept “a group of dancing, laughing, joking dwarfs” in his entourage, occasionally tossing them around as sport like human shot puts.
That last part isn’t in the official biography. And it would be a shame if all you knew about Alwaleed was his wealth, because the personality behind those billions of dollars sounds no less extraordinary.
It’s true that Alwaleed descends from King Abdulaziz al-Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, which the Saud family has controlled ever since. But the website biography doesn’t mention what Vanity Fair will tell you: that Alwaleed’s father rebelled against the repressive monarchy in the 1960s and forever after damaged his line’s chances of inheriting the throne.
Though that hasn’t stopped Alwaleed from hinting that he might one day sit on it.
Vanity Fair’s profile also retells — with some skepticism — the official story of how Alwaleed amassed his immense fortune.
It reads like a fairy tale.
The prince was about 30, having returned from Menlo College in California with a business degree in 1985.
“Alwaleed claims his father gave him $30,000. Within a year, he had lost the money. He went back to his father, who gave him $300,000. This time, it took him three years to lose it.”
Third time was the charm. Alwaleed’s father gave him the deed to a house instead of cash and told him, “Work for yourself.” So he took a loan out on the deed, and with some shrewd investments (and his royal stipend, and the proceeds from hawking a $200,000 heirloom), the prince learned to become a self-made man.
Others have speculated that his fortune owes more to the royal family’s control of Saudi Arabia’s oil, Vanity Fair wrote — or even that Alwaleed is “a frontman for the vast wealth of the Saudi royal family.”
In any event, the prince surged to the top of the billionaires list in the early 1990s, not for any enterprise inside his family’s kingdom, but by investing in a then-struggling U.S. bank, now known as Citicorp.
From that point on, Alwaleed was a prince without borders. He worked with Stephen K. Bannon in the late 1990s. He sold a yacht to Donald Trump. At 62, the Associated Press reported, he’s one of the major shareholders in Apple, News Corp. and Twitter.
But we’re getting sidetracked by dollar signs again. In our defense, they suffuse almost every anecdote about the prince’s personality, and his hard-to-pin-down politics.
Alwaleed donated $10 million to help New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Business Insider reported, for example. But Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) turned the money down after the prince issued a news release criticizing the U.S. position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
He has always been a press-happy prince. (Or occasionally press-cranky, as when Alwaleed sued Forbes for defamation, claiming the magazine had underestimated his wealth at a mere $20 billion.)
Seated in a recliner in shaded glasses at night, Business Insider reported, Alwaleed held forth to CNBC on the banking crisis in 2008. The same year, according to Forbes, he put on a ceremonial Saudi robe and took his personal Boeing 747 to the city of Jiddah. There he pitched his uncle, King Abdullah, on his plan to built a skyscraper more than a kilometer tall.
“It will be the epicenter of Jiddah,” the prince told Forbes. “It will be a magnet.”